NLDS Dodgers Braves Baseball

NLDS Preview: Dodgers vs. Braves

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You can’t predict baseball, but you can at least lay out the parameters. So let’s take a look at what the Dodgers and Braves have in store for us in the National League Division Series.

The Teams

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. Atlanta Braves (96-66)

The Matchups

Game 1 Today in Atlanta: Clayton Kershaw vs. Kris Medlen
Game 2 Friday in Atlanta: Zack Greinke vs. Mike Minor
Game 3 Sunday in Los Angeles: Julio Teheran vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu
Game 4 (if necessary) Monday in Los Angeles: Freddy Garcia vs. Ricky Nolasco
Game 5 (if necessary) Wednesday in Atlanta

Overview: 

The Dodgers had huge preseason expectations which looked to be dashed after stumbling out of the gate to a 31-42 record which had them 9.5 games back in the NL West as late as June 22. Don Mattingly was assumed to be on the hot seat and the season seemed lost. Then all they did was call up rookie Yasiel Puig and go on a tear and put the division in their rear-view mirror. Most of the headlines about the Dodgers in the second half were about Yasiel Puig’s exploits and the injuries to offensive stars like Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez. The real story of this team, however, is its stellar starting pitching, led by presumptive Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and a man who would be the ace on just about every other team, Zack Greinke. Indeed, the Dodgers led the NL in ERA.

Atlanta, on the other hand, was in first place every single day of the season except for one day in early April and were never challenged for the NL East crown. Its a team which, for much of the season, featured a feast-or-famine approach at the plate, with lots of homers and lots of strikeouts to go with them. Indeed, Atlanta led the NL in both categories.  As the second half progressed, however, a bit more dynamism entered the offense, with outfielder Jason Heyward moving to the leadoff position and B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla increasingly riding the pine. And while the Dodgers have the best pitching around, don’t sleep on the Braves’ staff. They were second in the NL in ERA and their bullpen was the best in the National League.

Storylines

  • The Dodgers and the Braves both stumbled in September, with L.A. posting a record of 12-15 and Atlanta going 13-14. September records can be misleading, however, especially when the teams involved had more or less sewn up their playoff positions before Labor Day. As such, “momentum” — a dubious idea when it comes to the playoffs anyway — is  not exactly on the table here.
  • While momentum may not always be meaningful, the stuff underlying the poor finishes can matter. In the Dodgers case, injuries loom large. Center fielder Matt Kemp will not appear in the playoffs. Andre Ethier may very well be on the playoff roster, but he has had one plate appearance since September 13. Hanley Ramirez has not played back-to-back games for some time and has nursed multiple injuries during his otherwise outstanding season. Puig fouled a ball off his foot last weekend and has suffered various bumps and bruises.
  • Head-to-head matchups are likewise of minimal use here. Yes, the Braves took five of seven in the season series against the Dodgers, but that season series was totally wrapped up by June 9, which was before the Dodgers turned their season around. And they haven’t faced Kershaw since 2011. For all practical purposes, these teams are strangers to one another.
  • The Dodgers rotation and the Braves bullpen will be much talked about, but it’s not as if the Braves rotation and Dodgers bullpen are chopped liver. Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have been quite good this year, with Medlen being particularly hot in September. Meanwhile, the late season addition of Brian Wilson as the Dodgers setup man and the fact that Kenley Jansen strikes out 13 batters per nine innings makes the Dodgers bullpen formidable indeed.

Prediction

This would appear to be a very even matchup. The Dodgers fantastic starters against a Braves lineup which, while potent, can look lost against top hurlers. The Braves shutdown bullpen against a Dodgers lineup racked with injuries and, recently anyway, inconsistency. If the games are close, the Braves’ dominant bullpen could be the difference maker, but with Kershaw and Greinke taking three of the five possible starts, the Braves’ offense could find itself tied in knots, preventing them from ever getting close.

This is about as close to a coin-flip as I can see among the four Division Series matchups, but if I have to pick one team, I’ll pick The Dodgers in Five.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.